Undergraduate Research and Inquiry

Undergraduate Research as a Teaching Approach

What is it?

First-year Kinesiology Experience

Undergraduate research (UGR) is an experiential learning strategy and one of the ten high impact educational practices as named by George Kuh (2008). Although UGR can take many forms, one aspect of UGR is as a teaching approach. The University of Saskatchewan, after wide consultation, has chosen to foreground this approach. The goal? Every student graduating from the University of Saskatchewan has had an undergraduate research experience. To that end, supports are focused on the integration of UGR as a teaching approach in large first year classes.

The goal for first-year students is to be welcomed into the academic community with the opportunity to (1) develop an understanding of the research arc; (2) get a sense of the essence of research as it applies to learning and discovery; and (3) gain insight into what it means to “think and act like a researcher” in the epistemology and ontology of the discipline (How do researchers in this field come to know what they know? What methods and approaches to research in the discipline?)

The Research Arc:  

  1. Develop a Question
  2. Investigate the Question
  3. Share Findings

Within course learning outcomes, students work through the research arc via a series of structured experiences that scaffold the development of research skills.

More specifically, students ask questions linked to the course content and learning outcomes—and they learn how to develop a question that is research-able by the methods used in the discipline. (As we know, developing a “good question” is a teachable skill that requires practice.) Secondly, students systematically seek to investigate the questions using discipline-relevant methodologies and analyses frameworks. Thirdly, students share their findings in an authentic academic way with colleagues and peers.

While students connect with the course instructional team in new ways and interact with one another in the spirit of discovery, this is not a fully mentored one-on-one research experience. The course-based UGR experience focuses on the introduction of the essence of research in a way that is reflective of the discipline and highlights what it means to “think like a researcher” in a discipline. The UGR initiative aims to make explicit the ways in which we discover and how we share that which has been discovered.

What is meant by ‘research’?

Undergraduate Research in First Year Courses

A number of other attempts to define (or provide frameworks to help conceptualize) undergraduate research have been made (for a summary, see Brew, 2013):

The Council for Undergraduate Research in the US defines undergraduate research more narrowly as “An inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline (CUR, 2013).

Healey (2005) developed a framework to help conceptualize how research is integrated in the undergraduate student learning environment based on whether the learning opportunity is student centred or teacher centred, or whether the learning opportunity focuses on the product of research or the process of research.  The framework identifies four quadrants:

  • research-tutored (engaging in research discussions),
  • research-led (learning about current research in the discipline),
  • research-oriented (developing research and inquiry skills), and
  • research-based (engaging in research and inquiry).

Why would I use it?

Undergraduate research in Physics

There is a growing consensus around the need for undergraduate research and inquiry that is grounded in the argument that students must graduate with higher order skills that prepare them for today’s increasingly supercomplex society and economy, skills that are developed particularly well through research and inquiry-based learning opportunities (Barnett, 2005).

The benefits of undergraduate research include

  • increased confidence,
  • cognitive and technical skill development,
  • problem-solving and critical thinking development,
  • clarification of future career or educational opportunities,
  • an understanding of how knowledge is created, and
  • increased understanding of disciplinary ways of thinking and practicing (Brew, 2006; Hunter et al., 2007, Hunter et al., 2010). 

How do I apply it in my teaching?

Co-curricular Undergraduate Research:

  • Small numbers of undergraduate students serve as research assistants one-on-one or in small groups with a faculty mentor, particularly over the summer months.  These may be volunteer opportunities or paid positions, funded by fellowships, out of individual researcher’s research accounts, or from internal funding opportunities.

Embedding Research in Curriculum:

  • The literature has many examples of how curricula have been developed across different years and disciplines (for example, see: Healey & Jenkins, 2009; Spronken-Smith et al., 2011; Walkington et al., 2011; Zimbardi & Myatt, 2012).

Research Skills Development (RSD) Framework:

  • The RSD Framework invites reflection on the different dimensions (or facets) of inquiry – including problem posing and data gathering and analysis, through to communicating the results of the inquiry – as well as the level of student autonomy in directing the research and inquiry process.
  • For more information please visit the RSD webpage at: http://www.adelaide.edu.au/rsd/

Research Dissemination (Communication):

  • For students to develop all facets of inquiry, it is also critically important to provide students with opportunities to disseminate their work.
  • A new framework has been proposed for understanding UGRI dissemination that links the extent of to which the dissemination is public with the degree to which students have autonomy (Spronken-Smith et al., submitted).  This new framework for research dissemination helps to question, and plan for, the nature of dissemination sought for curricular and co-curricular undergraduate research and inquiry experiences.

Resources and References


  • Barnett R. (2005). Introduction. In R. Barnett (ed.), Reshaping the University: New Relationship between Research, Scholarship and Teaching. London: The Society for Research into Higher Education and the Open University Press, 1-8.
  • Boyer Commission (1998). Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities. Stony Brook: Carnegie Foundation for University Teaching.
  • Brew, A. (2006). Research and Teaching: Beyond the Divide. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.
  • Brew, A. (2013). Understanding the scope of undergraduate research: a framework for curricular and pedagogical decision-making. Higher Education. DOI 10.1007/s10734-013-9624-x
  • Brew, A. & Boud, D. (1995). Teaching and research: establishing the vital link with learning, Higher Education, 29 (3), 261-273.
  • Council for Undergraduate Research (2013). About CUR: Frequently Asked Questions.  Accessed at: http://www.cur.org/about_cur/frequently_asked_questions_/#2
  • Cousin, G. (2007). Exploring threshold concepts for linking teaching and research.
    Paper presented to the International Colloquium: International Policies and Practices for Academic Enquiry, Winchester, April.
  • Healey M. & Jenkins, A. (2009). Undergraduate Research and Inquiry. York: Higher Education Academy.
  • Healey M., Jordan F., Pell B., & Short C. (2010).  The Research-Teaching Nexus: A case study of students’ awareness, experiences and perceptions of research. Innovations in Education and Teaching International.
  • Hunter A-B., Laursen S., & Seymour E. (2007).  Becoming a Scientist: the role of undergraduate research in students’ cognitive, personal and professional development.  Science Education. 91, 36-74.
  • Hunter A-B., Laursen S., Seymour E., Thiry H., & Melton G. (2010).  Summer Scientists: Establishing the value of shared research for science faculty and their students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (in press).
  • Kuh G. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter.  Washington, DC:  Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Spronken-Smith, R. A., Walker, R., Dickinson, K. J. M., Closs, G. P., Lord, J. M., & Harland, T. (2011). Redesigning a curriculum for inquiry: An ecology case study. Instructional Science, 39(5), 721-735.
  • Spronken-Smith, R. A., Brodeur, J. J., Kajaks, T., Luck, M., Myatt, P., Verburgh, A., Walkington, H. & Wuetherick, B. (forthcoming) Completing the Research Cycle: A Framework for Promoting Dissemination of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry.  Teaching and Learning Inquiry.  
  • Turner, N., Wuetherick, B., & Healey, M. (2008). International perspectives on student awareness, experiences and perceptions of research. International Journal for Academic Development, 13(3), 199-211.
  • Walkington, H., Griffin, A. L., Keys-Mathews, L., Metoyer, S. K., Miller, W. E., Baker, R., & France, D. (2011). Embedding research-based learning early in the undergraduate geography curriculum. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3), 315–330.
  • Willison, J., & O’Regan, K. (2007). Commonly known, commonly not known, totally unknown: A framework for students becoming researchers. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(4), 393–409.
  • Willison J. (2009). Multiple Contexts, Multiple Outcomes, One Conceptual Framework for Research Skill Development in the Undergraduate Curriculum. CUR Quarterly, 29 (3) (Spring), 10-14.
  • Wuetherick, B. (2013). Improving Student Learning: The Case for Undergraduate Research and Inquiry. Bridges, 11 (3).
  • Wuetherick, B. (2013). Teaching AND Research, not Teaching OR Research. Bridges, 11 (2), 3-5.
  • Wuetherick, B., & McLaughlin, M. (2011). Exploring student perceptions of research in the learning environment: A partnership to enhance our understanding of the undergraduate student experience. In S. Little (Ed.). Staff-Student Partnerships in Higher Education. London, UK: Continuum International Publishing Group.
  • Zimbardi, K., & Myatt, P. (2012). Embedding undergraduate research experiences within the curriculum: A cross-disciplinary study of the key characteristics guiding implementation. Studies in Higher Education. , DOI:10.1080/03075079.2011.651448

Funding and Support

There are a variety of funding and support options for experiential learning approaches at the University of Saskatchewan.

Experiential Learning Support